GULFPORT — Officials at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport have so far been unable to stem a four-and-a-half year trend of falling passenger numbers but they are hopeful new grants and partnerships can attract more travelers.
In the first five months of 2015, the number of passengers flying into and out of the airport fell by 5.9 percent compared to the same period last year. That follows a decline in the number of passengers each year since 2011. In 2010, 893,572 passengers came through the airport. In 2014 that number was 662,428.
The airport isn’t alone in its struggles. As major airlines merge or go out of business, it’s become increasingly difficult for small airports to attract business.
Clay Williams, executive director of the airport, said ongoing conversations with airlines, as well as a new grant aimed at marketing, could attract more frequent flights and larger airplanes. But ultimately it will depend on demand — how much area residents opt to use the local airport rather than drive to New Orleans.
“Air service is very important for the overall economy,” Williams said. “Access to markets nationwide, and worldwide, is critical to the economic growth of south Mississippi. We’ve got great connectivity here.”
Legislators apparently recognized this need when they passed the Mississippi Air Service Development Program in 2014. It will be funded for the first time this year, granting small airports across the state a share of $750,000 to support marketing and help minimize the initial risk airlines take when they enter a new market.
“What we need to ask is what are the ways we can incentivize and provide tools that airlines can utilize to abate risk when coming into a market,” Williams said.
A partnership with Sun Country Airlines based in Minnesota will also serve around 2,000 people a year through 13-week seasonal service. The airline is offering packages with resorts on the Coast to open a previously untapped market.
Officials are also working with the three major airlines that already fly through Gulfport-Biloxi — United, American and Delta — to increase the number of flights and the size of the jets that fly into and out of the airport.
Delta has already opted to fly large aircraft rather than regional jets to the area and Williams expects an overall trend in the airline industry toward bigger airplanes to push American and United to soon do the same.
Still, Williams said, the airport’s best efforts need help from local residents.
“We need people to utilize the service we have. The more people that fly from here, use the service, the more airlines are inclined to add increases in service offerings,” he said.
— REGINA ZILBERMINTS, The Sun Herald
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